Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Agriculture – Part 3

Southdown sheep.

by Mary Grow

This subseries began last week to talk about some of the central Kennebec Valley’s agricultural pioneers whom Samuel Boardman named in his chapter on agriculture in Henry Kingsbury’s Kennebec County history.

One was Rev. William Pitt Addison Dillingham, of Sidney, who was previously noticed in an introductory essay on agriculture in the March 18, 2021, issue of The Town Line.

Dillingham (Sept. 4, 1824 – April 22, 1871) was primarily a minister, mostly in the Universalist church. Sidney historian Alice L. Hammond wrote that one of his posts was with the Sidney First Universalist Society, of which his father-in-law, Dodavah or Dodivah Townsend (June 4, 1775 – Dec. 4, 1852; one of Sidney’s early settlers), was among the organizers in June 1840.

Dillingham and his wife, Caroline Price Townsend (born May 25, 1817), owned a farm that Hammond said was called Fairview Farm and was also the home of Caroline’s father.

(The 1879 map of Sidney shows no Dillingham property. There is a D. Townsend house, on the north side of Bartlett Road, closer to Tiffany Road than to Pond Road. The 1856 map shows the same D. Townsend property.)

Hammond wrote that Dillingham brought two sheep breeds, Oxford Downs and Southdowns, to Sidney in 1858.

Oxford Downs sheep.

The Southdown, according to Wikipedia, is the smallest of British sheep breeds “and the basis of the whole Down group of breeds.” Southdowns were first bred in East Sussex, England, around 1800, for both wool and meat.

Boardman said it was Charles Vaughan, of Hallowell, who brought the first Southdowns into Maine, in 1834.

Wikipedia says Oxford Downs were bred in Oxfordshire (hence the name) in the 1830s, by cross-breeding Cotswold rams with Southdown and Hampshire Down ewes. The result is a large sheep with short white wool and “a large, meaty carcass,” making it a breed raised primarily for meat.

C. K. Sawtelle also raised sheep in Sidney, according to Hammond and Boardman.

Boardman called cattle – cows and oxen – “the real basis of successful agriculture.” He again credited Benjamin and Charles Vaughan for importing valuable breeds that got the Kennebec Valley off to a good start.

Soon, however, interest waned, and herds began to deteriorate, Boardman wrote. Among a new generation of farmers who “took up the responsibility of obtaining high priced registered stock from abroad, or improving the best of that which remained” in the 1830s and 1840s, he named Luther and Bradford Sawtelle, of Sidney.

The index to Hammond’s history has almost two pages of Sawtelles, from Abbie Z. to Zypporah, plus a column of Sawtells; and there is a multi-page summary genealogy. Kingsbury explained that an early Pond Road settler named Moses Sawtelle had seven sons and was distantly related to another settler named John Sawtelle: “This accounts for the frequency of the name in Sidney.”

Luther Sawtelle (Aug. 7, 1800 – June 25, 1872) and Bradford Jorel Sawtelle (May 18, 1811 – Nov. 12, 1897) were sons of John and Thankful (Robbins) Sawtelle. When Kingsbury wrote his history in 1892, he said Luther’s oldest son, Ambrose, was living on the family homestead, a farm Luther bought in 1824 called Pleasant Plain Farm, and Bradford (by then in his early 80s) was farming part of it.

Summer Sweet apple.

Hammond listed apples, hay and potatoes as other important products of Sidney farms. Hay, she pointed out, was a common export from much of Maine to cities in Massachusetts while horse-drawn transport prevailed. In 1850 she found that Sidney “produced more than 5,700 tons of hay.”

Apples were the “second largest crop” in Sidney in the first half of the 1800s. Farmers planted apple trees “along stone walls or together in clumps on less desirable land” that wasn’t as good for raising hay. Early varieties included Baldwin, Ben Davis and Stark.

Hammond named Sidney farmer Paul Bailey as an experimental apple breeder, “originating a variety named Bailey’s Golden Sweet.”

An on-line source called Out on a Limb Apples recognizes another Sidney-bred apple: Ichabod Thomas created the Summer Sweet around the year 1800. It’s described as a yellow apple with “a beautiful golden apricot-orange blush” and usually “apricot around the stem area.”

The Summer Sweet is “medium-small,” about two inches in diameter, firm-fleshed, with “a mild sweet flavor, best for fresh eating or sauce. It makes a thick, creamy, tropical-flavored sauce—with hints of banana and pineapple —that takes a while to cook down and may need some added water to keep it from burning to the bottom of the pot.”

Ichabod Thomas

On-line sources say that Ichabod Thomas (March 14, 1758 – Feb. 25, 1845) was born in Marsh­field, Massa­chusetts. He was a Revolu­tionary War veteran, having served almost a year in two different regiments. Moving to Maine, on March 10, 1791, he married Mehitable Crosby (Sept. 16, 1767 – April 26, 1842) in Winslow; she was from Albion.

The couple had seven children between 1791 and 1805. The oldest was born in Vassalboro, before Sidney became a separate town on Jan. 20, 1792.

Thomas was a respected citizen, according to records Hammond found and another on line. She identified him as Sidney’s first town clerk, elected at the first town meeting. An on-line record says he held the office two later years, and was a selectman for five years and town treasurer for two non-successive terms.

He and Mehitable died in Brownville, Maine, and are buried in Brownville Village Cemetery with his mother, Eleanor (Mrs. Joseph) Thomas, who died in June 1823 aged almost 96.

Other Sidney residents were apple growers, on various scales. In 1876, Hammond said, the largest apple orchard in Kennebec County was the Bowman brothers’ on Middle Road, which had 75,000 trees.

Hammond wrote that Sidney’s apple crop became less important after the mid-1800s, “as the original trees grew old and there were few new plantings.”

Sweet corn was “a major crop for a good many years” in Sidney, Hammond said. She credited Isaac Winslow, “of Vassalboro,” with learning how to process food while he was in France “on naval duty” and starting a canning factory “around 1840.”

Sweet corn, Hammond wrote, was well suited to less specialized farms: “It provided a cash crop, utilized the farm manure, produced cattle forage, and used family labor….”

It was in 1850 that the railroad along the east bank of the Kennebec River first reached Waterville, Hammond wrote, expanding markets for up-river farmers. Sidney farmers ferried crops to railheads in Riverside and North Vassalboro while the water was open.

In winter, “they risked their lives, teams, and loads to venture across the ice. Many stories have been told of the close calls they had and of the not-so-fortunate who went through the ice.”

Isaac Winslow and corn canning

An on-line account says a Frenchman, Nicolas Appert, invented canning vegetables as a method of preserving food in 1809, thereby earning a reward offered by the Emperor Napoleon as he sought to feed the French Navy. The process was quickly brought to England and America.

For sweet corn, the process consisted of taking the kernels off the cob; putting them in a glass bottle (originally) or a can; heating them to kill bacteria; and sealing the container. First done by hand, it was soon mechanized.

Isaac Winslow

Another on-line site, a Warren County, Ohio, web page, says: “Isaac Winslow is believed to have been the first to successfully can sugar corn for market. He made his experiments in 1842, and applied for a patent which was not granted until 1863.”

Isaac Winslow is mentioned in Alice Bibber’s 1989 paper titled Nearly All in the Family: Nathan Winslow and His Family Network, published in Vol. 28 of Maine History and available online through the University of Maine’s Digital Commons.

Bibber’s focus was on the extended family that assisted Isaac’s older brother, Nathan Winslow (born in March 1785), a Portland-based inventor and merchant whom she credits with “launching the first corn-canning operation in the United States.”

Canned corn from 1800s.

She added, “Although twentieth-century historians credit Isaac with being the first person to preserve corn in tin cans, at least one contemporary who talked with Nathan Winslow about the business stated that the latter had made the experiments.”

Bibber mentioned Isaac as sailing to Le Havre, France, in 1818, not in the Navy but on a family whaling ship; and taking his ill sister-in-law, Nathan’s wife, to Madeira in 1842, where she died early in 1843.

“Some time earlier,” Bibber wrote, “Isaac Winslow had returned home with information about a French method of preserving food in sealed cans.” Nathan and Isaac decided to try it; Bibber wrote they used as “a base of operations” the family farm, which was apparently in Falmouth.

A factory was set up in 1852. When patents were issued in 1862, Bibber wrote, they were in Isaac Winslow’s name, but “assigned to” Nathan’s nephew, John Winslow Jones.

Bibber mentioned Vassalboro once: after Isaac’s father married Lydia Hacker, from Massachusetts, his wife’s family moved to Brunswick and “made marriage ties with a Vassalboro family.”

There is one more possible connection: the Winslows were Quakers, and Vassalboro and China had relatively large numbers of Quakers. However, your writer found no evidence confirming Alice Hammond’s statement that Isaac Winslow lived in Vassalboro.

Main sources

Hammond, Alice, History of Sidney Maine 1792-1992 (1992).
Kingsbury, Henry D., ed., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).

Vassalboro residents air anger over drivers on town roads

by Mary Grow

Some Vassalboro residents are fed up with people who do not drive safely, legally and respectfully on local roads, and they brought their complaints to the Sept. 7 select board meeting, not for the first time.

After a half-hour public hearing, Vassalboro select board members responded by creating a new committee to deal with one issue, the four-way intersection in East Vassalboro. Residents complained drivers going straight through on Route 32 exceed the 25-mile-an-hour speed limit, endangering pedestrians and local drivers trying to get out of their driveways. A nearby homeowner reported seeing vehicles ignore the stop sign on Bog Road and cross Route 32 at speed.

Town Manager Aaron Miller said the speed recording sign set up on Route 32 in July and August showed average speeds were not excessive, but occasionally drivers were recorded at 60 or more miles an hour. Residents Holly Weidner and Laura Jones questioned the accuracy of the result, suggesting that many drivers slow down when they see the sign.

Weidner and Jones urged select board and committee members to review the 2010 report on the East Vassalboro intersection, copies of which they distributed. Many of its recommendations appear to be still valid, they said.

Select board member Frederick “Rick” Denico, Jr., asked why nothing was done to implement the 2010 ideas. Weidner blamed a lack of collaboration and follow-through, including cost calculations.

The new committee, which Miller christened the East Vassalboro Village Project Team, will be asked to evaluate ways to slow traffic on Route 32. An initial proposal for four-way stop signs had little support Sept. 7. Other suggestions include a flashing light or speed bumps.

The committee’s suggested membership includes East Vassalboro residents, Miller and representatives of the planning board and the public works department. Anyone interested should contact the town office.

The second repeat complaint appeared on the meeting agenda as “Burnout Ordinance request,” referring to a request for a town ordinance to penalize drivers who deliberately burn out, annoying residents and leaving tire marks on the pavement (see the Aug. 24 issue of The Town Line, p. 2), including across the newly-painted stripes on Cross Hill Road.

Select board chairman Chris French referenced Title 29A, section 2079, of Maine law, which says, “Braking or acceleration may not be unnecessarily made so as to cause a harsh and objectionable noise.”

The concerned resident objected that the problem is less noise than damage, claiming rubber on the road wears out the pavement and reduces adjoining property values.

French said a local ordinance on a topic already covered by state law is not necessarily useful; and a local ordinance would have to be enforced locally, by Vassalboro Police Chief Mark Brown.

Lack of enforcement was the major problem with all the traffic offenses being discussed, board and audience members agreed. Denico reminded the group that at Vassalboro’s June 5 annual town meeting, voters rejected a chance to increase Brown’s weekly hours from 15 to 20 (see the June 8 issue of The Town Line, p. 2).

French said Brown does some traffic control, as his time permits. He listed some of the chief’s many other duties, a list Jones said she intends to put on the town’s Facebook page that she manages as a volunteer.

The other major agenda item Sept. 7 was a presentation by partners in TownCloud, the Maine-based company Miller recommends to take over design and maintenance of Vassalboro’s town website. Their business cards identify them as Christopher Haywood, Chief Amazement Officer, and Dennis Harward, Wizard of Light Bulb Moments.

Haywood said the seven-year-old company specializes in designing websites for small towns all over the country, including, in Maine, Bethel, Denmark, Livermore, Norway, Solon and St. Albans. Their goal is to make the sites simple, inexpensive, user-friendly, responsive and secure, to meet residents’ needs and minimize costs and staff time.

He demonstrated a sample website for Vassalboro, built using information imported from the current site. One example he showed was the agenda for the Sept. 7 meeting with the packet of accompanying documents, like the police report Jones proposed sharing on Facebook.

TownCloud’s proposal would cover the website and meeting agendas, not just the select board’s but other committees’. Haywood said some towns post agendas for up to 15 committees.

Miller said TownCloud was the least expensive of options he explored, at $3,754 for three years’ service.

Jones urged creation of another committee to collect residents’ input on what a website should include and how it should work. She promised a list of committee volunteers on Sept. 8.

Despite Harward’s reminder that the website can be modified any time, select board members postponed a decision to their first meeting in December (currently, Thursday, Dec. 14), to give more time for public input and a recommendation from Jones’ “Tiger Team.”

In other business, Vassalboro librarian Brian Stanley thanked the town’s public works crew for their help with ongoing renovations and asked about ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds for several projects, like improved ventilation and new rugs.

Because the library is a nonprofit organization, not a town department, select board members were unsure what kinds of work ARPA money could cover. They unanimously allocated $3,975 for a new front door that will be controlled by a push-button and thereby comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On Miller’s recommendation, board members appointed Andrew Vear as an alternate member of the planning board.

They renewed the cemetery mowing contract with Scott Bumford, whose work was praised at the board’s Aug. 17 meeting.

The next regular Vassalboro select board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21.

VASSALBORO: Lack of information postpones project action

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro Planning Board members discussed two proposed projects at their Sept. 5 meeting, but lacked information to act on either one.

They had an incomplete application from Ronald Weeks to add what the agenda called “an Amish building” on a lot on Dam Road, on the southeast side of Webber Pond.

Weeks was not at the meeting. Board members postponed the application to their Oct. 3 meeting.

Darrell and Jessica Field were present to explain why they needed to clarify land titles as they prepare to subdivide a lot on Gray Road and Katie Drive in northern Vassalboro.

After reviewing the history of the 2001 Norman and Diane Bailey subdivision and the 2015 division of the original Field lot between family members, board members agreed the Fields, with the assistance of the original surveyors (K & K Land Surveyors, in Oakland, the Fields said), should prepare a major subdivision application for the Oct. 3 board meeting.

Board chairman Virginia Brackett assured them the task should not be too difficult, because with K & K’s original records most of the necessary information will be at hand.

The only other topic discussed, briefly, is another possibility for the Oct. 3 agenda. Board member Marianne Stevens reported that Kassandra Lopes, whose retail store on Main Street, in North Vassalboro, was approved by the board on June 6, has moved her business into the building next door.

The two single-story buildings on the east side of the street – years ago, the credit union and the post office, Brackett said – are owned by Raymond Breton and have frequently housed short-lived small businesses. Brackett said Lopes’ relocation is a change of use for the previously-empty building and should have planning board approval.

Vassalboro Days wraps up another successful year

Sending the ducks on their way. (photo by Samantha Lessard)

by Laura Jones

That’s a wrap on Vassalboro Days 2023, sponsored by the Vassalboro Business Association and Maine Savings Federal Credit Union. There was lots of fun, family, food and prizes.

The Mill, in Vassalboro, and Olde Mill Place Gift Shop hosted activities all weekend beginning with The Root Notes playing live music Friday night. A Craft and Vendor Sale Saturday and Sunday. The Masons sold their much anticipated chicken baskets. And, of course, the Double Dam Duck Derby. Ducks hit the water at 1:30 p.m., and the winners were announced soon thereafter. Cash prizes went to first place Nate Gray, second place Tami Stearns, and third place Paul Breton.

One of the cars featured at the 8th Annual Freddie’s Cruise In at the Town Office. (photo by Lee Pullen)

An aerial view of the classic cars on display at Vassalboro Days. (photo by Lee Pullen)

Freddie’s Service Center hosted the 8th Annual Freddie’s Cruise In at the Town Office, which registered over 165 cars. Lee Pullen described it as a “true labor of love”. Lee captured the essence of it beautifully. “Our dad, Freddie Pullen, passed in 2015 and this event was the brainchild of my brother Bill and his wife Roxanne, who now own Freddie’s Service Center, as a way to give back to the community that has been so very good to our family and as a kind of tribute to our father. Dad would have loved the event. The cars, sure; Vassalboro Days and all it represents, yes; but the people, the family, the stories? He would truly have been in his glory.”

The Vassalboro Grange hosted a pancake breakfast Saturday morning to a sell out crowd. Prepared right there in the Grange kitchen and featuring ingredients from local farms. The Milkhouse, Misty Brook Farm, Two Loons Farm, Raider’s Sugarhouse, and Mbingo Mountain Coffee provided all the fresh and fabulous ingredients.

The Vassal­boro Historical Society had an open house at both the Museum and the Taylor’s Blacksmith Shop Saturday and Sunday. Many came through to enjoy the displays and also to do some family research in the library of record. Saturday also kicked off a months long raffle with over $2,000 worth of prizes to win from over 20 local businesses. The historical society will be selling tickets anytime they are open, Mondays and Tuesdays, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.. Until the drawing on October 8.

Other actives around town included the Vassalboro Public Library’s Book and Bake Sale. Lemieux’s Orchard had their annual apple picking, corn maze, hay rides, baked goods and donuts.

Grange pancake breakfast crew. (photo by Laura Jones)

Many crafters participated. (photo by Laura Jones)

Prizes from Vassalboro Historical Society’s months-long raffle. (photo by Laura Jones)

Antique equipment on display at Taylor Blacksmith. (photo by Laura Jones)

CORRECTION: The print version of this article referred to Lee Pullen as Lee Mullen. This has been corrected.

Vassalboro school board members hold responsibility workshop

Vassalboro Community School (contributed photo)

by Mary Grow

Before the Aug. 29 Vassalboro school board meeting, Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association (MSMA), led a workshop on board members’ responsibilities, including reminders of what they should not do.

Although school board members are elected by town voters, their roles and responsibilities are defined by state law, Bailey said.

Individual members cannot act officially, unless the full board has so authorized in a specific case. For example, if someone brings an educational concern to a board member, the member can listen sympathetically, but the next step is a referral to the full board or appropriate administrator.

Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer said he tries to offer an initial response to public complaints and concerns within 24 hours, understanding that resolving an issue will often take longer.

Bailey emphasized the respective roles of the board and the administration. Board members are not supposed to be “down in the weeds” dealing with daily operations; they are supposed to set goals and policies, which direct the superintendent as he delegates implementation to school staff.

In summary, Bailey said, the board’s responsibility is not to operate the educational program, but to see that it is well operated.

This division of labor does not mean that board members cannot join the parent-teacher organization, or volunteer services, though Bailey cautioned they should avoid taking leadership roles.

Another important task is to keep communications open with school staff and with town residents. State law requires that board meetings be open to the public (with exceptions for executive-session discussions) and that each meeting agenda include a public comment period. But, Bailey added, board members must make sure public discussion does not distract them from doing their job, which is to deal with the business on their agenda.

He reminded board members that emails about school business are public records. They should use their official school accounts for school-related emails and should avoid including confidential information.

And he summarized some of the laws passed or amended during the recent legislative session. Some of the state changes may require amendments to school board policies, an on-going process with Vassalboro board members.

Bailey congratulated VCS on having only “a few” open positions; other Maine schools have many staff vacancies, he said.

Gaga pit installed at school

One of the summer projects at Vassalboro Community School was construction of a Gaga pit on the school grounds, Principal Ira Michaud reported at the Aug. 29 school board meeting. He added a photo of the pit to his report.

A Gaga pit is an enclosure in which to play the game called Gaga. Wikipedia says the name is from the Hebrew word for “touch, touch” and calls the game “a variant of dodgeball.”

Players in the pit slap a ball, trying to strike another player below the knee (rules vary, but below the knee seems to be most common). The ball is soft, foam or rubber or similar. A player hit below the knee is out and leaves the pit; a player whose ball hits another player above the knee is out; the winner is the last person still in.

Michaud said the VCS Gaga pit is a 22-foot-diameter wooden-walled box. It can accommodate two dozen players, but is more suited to a dozen at a time. He planned to try it out the day after the meeting; Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer said later that the games were postponed for a day because of rain on Aug. 30.

VASSALBORO: Board updated on school summer improvements

Vassalboro Community School (contributed photo)

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro School Board members began their fall/winter meetings on Aug. 29 with the usual updates on summer improvements; approval of new staff and other appointments for the coming school year; and financial report.

Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer summarized the work done on the exterior of Vassalboro Community School (VCS) by Standard Waterproofing, of Winslow: a complete power-washing (“You could just see the difference,” interjected assistant principal Tabitha Brewer), resealing joints, repairs where needed and a silicone spray that should last six years.

The superintendent called the work “long overdue.” He had not received a final bill, but expected the cost to be around $195,000.

Pfeiffer praised the VCS custodial crew for their work on the building interior over the summer, and thanked principal Ira Michaud, Brewer and special education director Tanya Thibeau for the many hours they’ve put in since classes ended in June.

Michaud’s report to the school board listed multiple training sessions for teachers, showing that they, too, have been working over the summer. He mentioned successful pre-school events already held, and thanked Don and Lisa Breton and the people who donated school supplies to the drive the Bretons organized.

School board members approved new hires, including a school nurse and two sixth-grade teachers. VCS still needs a part-time Spanish teacher (to succeed Monica Fallaw, who resigned to accept a high-school position, Pfeiffer said), and there are a few openings for educational technicians.

Finance director Paula Pooler summarized unaudited year-end balances for FY 2022-23, which ended June 30. Of Vassalboro’s $8.722 million in proposed expenditures for last year, all but $5,421.88 was spent, she reported – very close budgeting, but still in the black.

Revenues were lower than expected, so the school department had to use some of the funds allocated from the undesignated fund balance. The undesignated fund still totals more than $1.2 million.

The VCS food service program, which ran a deficit for many years, showed an excess of revenue over expenditures in 2022-23 for the second year in a row, Pooler said.

For the new fiscal year that began July 1, Pooler sees no budgetary problems so far.

School board members re-elected Jolene Gamage board chairman and Jessica Clark vice-chairman, and reappointed members of board committees.

The only item of new business on the Aug. 29 agenda was review of proposed updates to the document called “Vassalboro Community School Strategic Plan Goals.” Pfieffer asked board members to be prepared for discussion at their Sept. 19 meeting.

He offered two other items for that meeting agenda: the 2023-24 school board meeting schedule, including tentative 2024 dates for reviewing the 2024-25 budget with the budget committee; and preliminary discussion of cooling upstairs classrooms at VCS.

New staff members will be invited to meet board members at 5:45 p.m., on Sept. 19, at VCS, and the board meeting will begin at 6 p.m.

VASSALBORO: School supplies drive has another successful event

From left to right, Ira Michaud (VCS principal), Don Breton, Tabitha Brewer (VCS assistant principal), Lisa and Jessica Breton. (contributed photo)

The school supplies gathering by a Vassalboro group for students at Vassalboro Community School, had another successful drive on August 19.

With Don Breton holding large pencil and Lisa Breton holding large crayon. Thank you goes out to Walmart, Huhtamaki, Caswell’s Liquidation, Staples, Marden’s, for their donations, and all the folks who stopped by to make a donation towards the school supplies drive. (contributed photo)

Event schedule for VASSALBORO DAYS: September 8 – 10, 2023

September 8 – 10, 2023

Friday, September 8

8 a.m. – 6 p.m. Lemieux’s Orchard – Apple picking, corn maze, baked goods & donuts, 210 Priest Hill Road
10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Book and Bake Sale, Vassalboro Public Library
11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Olde Mill Place Gift Store
7 – 10 p.m. The Root Notes, The Mill

Saturday, September 9

8 a.m. 6 p.m. Lemieux’s Orchard – Apple picking, corn maze, sunflower field, baked goods & donuts, Hay Rides (1 – 5 p.m.) 210 Priest Hill Road
8:30 – 11 a.m. Pancake Breakfast, The Grange
9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Open House at Museum, Blacksmith shop, Harness shop, Vassalboro Historical Society
9 a.m. – 3 p.m. The Mill Craft and Vendor Fair, games and activities, The Mill
9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Indoor yard sale, The Mill
9 a.m. – 2 p.m. Freddie’s 8th Annual Cruise-In, Prizes, Music and Food. Proceeds to benefit VBA Scholarship fund. Town office (rain date Sept. 10)
10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Masonic Lodge Fried Chicken Baskets, Burgers. You may order your baskets by calling 207-441-0378 from 9 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. that day! Proceeds benefit Bikes for Books. The Mill
10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Book and Bake Sale, Vassalboro Public Library
9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Olde Mill Place Gift Store
1:30 p.m. Double Dam Duck Derby, Tickets are $3 each or 5 for $10. Purchase at the Mill on Wed. ( 4 – 7 p.m.), Sundays 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. or Ray Breton (207-877-2005) or Samantha Lessard (207-314-4940). Ticket sales close 30 minutes before race. The Mill

Sunday, September 10

8 a.m. – 6 p.m. Lemieux’s Orchard, Apple picking, corn maze, sunflower field, baked goods and donuts. Hay rides (1 – 5 p.m.). 210 Priest Hill Rd.
9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Open House at Museum, Blacksmith shop, Harness shop. Vassalboro Historical Society
9 a.m. – 3 p.m. The Mill Craft and Vendor Fair, games and activities. The Mill
9 a.m. – 3 p.m., Indoor yard sale. The Mill
9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Olde Mill Place Gift Store
10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Winslow Community Cupboard. The Mill

Vassalboro select board sets 2023-24 tax rate at 12.72 mils

by Mary Grow

At their Aug. 17 meeting, Vassalboro select board members set the 2023-24 tax rate, discussed pending changes and distributed a bit of praise.

The new tax rate will be 12.72 mils, or $12.72 for each $1,000 of property valuation. The figure is slightly below the range assessor Ellery Bane recommended, and will provide less money in the overlay account than Bane suggested.

Overlay is used to pay for tax abatements or refunds. The 2023-24 account will have about $30,000, which select board members expect will be enough.

The current mil rate is 14.40 ($14.40 per $1,000). Because board members earlier accepted Bane’s recommendation to increase all valuations by 20 percent (see the June 29 issue of The Town Line, p. 2), an average tax bill will go up, despite the lower rate.

Town Manager Aaron Miller expected to commit the taxes Aug. 21. Bills will go out as soon as they can be prepared for mailing. By town meeting vote, the first quarterly payment is due by Monday, Sept. 25.

Board members agreed to include with each tax bill an opinion survey. They accepted three questions proposed by the town planning board and others suggested at the Aug. 17 meeting, leaving precise wording of the new ones to Miller.

An agenda item labeled “Bog Road detour,” referring to state plans to replace the Bog Road bridge in 2025 (see the July 20 issue of The Town Line, p. 3), led to a wide-ranging discussion of road-related issues.

Miller said he has a draft agreement with the state about detouring on town roads that needs review by the town attorney.

He has invited staff from the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) to talk about repaving Route 32 through North and East Vassalboro. Specific issues include the Vassalboro Sanitary District manholes and the granite curbing in North Vassalboro.

Select board members do not want the granite curbing replaced with higher-maintenance concrete.

The manhole covers are a major problem, residents and public works employee Brian Lajoie said, because the edges are slightly above the pavement level. Lajoie said hitting one with a snowplow brings the machine to a dead stop and often damages the blade, and it isn’t always possible to dodge or to lift the plow in time.

They’re a menace to ordinary traffic, too, resident James Schad said, as drivers stop abruptly or swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid hitting them.

The manholes belong to the Sanitary District, whose officials told select board members they cannot afford to have them redone. MDOT has disclaimed responsibility for them. The town owns neither the covers nor the road, though the town crew plows the road for the state.

Town seeks new codes & animal officers

The Town of Vassalboro is looking for a new codes enforcement officer/plumbing inspector/building inspector and a new animal control officer.

Codes officer Robert Geaghan, Jr., has submitted his resignation effective at the end of October. Animal control officer Peter Nerber plans to be done in November, Town Manager Aaron Miller told select board members at their Aug. 17 meeting.

Additional information is on the town website, vassalboro.net.

Those interested in information about or applications for either position can call the town office at 207-872-2826 or email Miller at amiller@vassalboro.net.

A resident raised yet another road issue: what he called vandalism as drivers deliberately damage town roads by doing donuts, peeling out and otherwise leaving black marks on the pavement. The practice harms the roads, lowers nearby property values and disturbs residents, he said. The Sheriff’s Office told him the problem was the town’s, not theirs.

Other audience members cited vehicle damage to fields and other off-road properties.

The resident asked select board members to draft an ordinance that would set penalties. Lajoie found a Somerville report saying that town’s officials sent an offender a letter threatening an injunction and a suit for damages; he did not know whether Somerville had a local ordinance.

Lajoie summarized 2023 paving plans for select board members. He expects the work to be done toward the end of September.

Now that the public works department has bought a new trailer (under budget, Miller said), Lajoie asked whether to trade in the old one or try to sell it. Select board members authorized a trade-in.

On a different subject, board members considered the only bid received for painting the North Vassalboro fire station roof, and expressed concern about spending more than $14,000 and getting only a one-year warranty. After discussion, they asked Miller to seek price quotes for replacing the roof instead of repainting it.

Another expenditure was approved cheerfully: board members unanimously contracted with Darrell Gagnon, owner of Attention to Detail Lawn Care, in North Vassalboro, to continue to mow town properties for another five years. Gagnon had built in small price increases over the life of the contract.

Board members are satisfied with his work and said they had received no complaints. Asked about the new Eagle Park, on Route 32, Gagnon said he is already mowing it. Recreation Director Karen Hatch praised his care of the town ballfields.

Gagnon also mows for Vassalboro’s school department. His contracts do not include town cemeteries, which are done by Scott Bumford. Gagnon praised Bumford’s work, and Lajoie agreed.

Select board members congratulated Vassalboro librarian Brian Stanley on the $24,999 grant the library received this summer. He explained the money will be used to turn two storage rooms into rooms where individuals or small groups can use computers in private for work, zoom meetings, telehealth and other purposes. He plans also to strengthen the library’s wifi signal.

Items now in storage will go into a separate building, for which the public works crew is preparing a pad, Stanley said. He expects the storage building to be in place this fall and an electrician to work during the winter.

Another project, removing tree limbs hanging over the library building, has been completed, and a resident donated money to cover the cost, Stanley reported.

Stanley shared with select board members excerpts from the library by-laws, which say they can come to library board meetings and can vote.

In other business Aug. 17:

  • Miller recommended transferring management of the Vassalboro website to TownCloud Group, based in Broomfield, Colorado, least expensive of several companies that offered quotes. Select board member Michael Poulin asked for a demonstration; Miller will make arrangements. The manager praised current webmaster David Jenney.
  • Miller is still exploring ideas for supplying select board members with laptops and for putting meetings on line, as they’re conducted or as recordings or both.
  • Board members appointed as members of the recreation committee, for one-year terms: Kris Stewart, baseball commissioner; Ryan Reed, softball commissioner and secretary; Kevin Phanor, basketball commissioner; Melissa Olson, soccer commissioner; Vickie Limberger, fundraiser and senior events; and John Fortin and Marie Fortin, members at large. Miller plans a committee meeting soon.
  • A proposed discussion of future improvements at the transfer station was postponed, probably until after the transfer station task force headed by select board chairman Chris French meets on Sept. 14.

At their July 13 meeting, board members scheduled a public hearing on proposals to slow traffic through East Vassalboro (see again the July 20 issue of The Town Line, p. 3) for their Thursday, Sept. 7 meeting. They tentatively scheduled the transfer station discussion for their Sept. 21 meeting.

Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Slave trade in Vassalboro

Captives being brought on board a slave ship on the west coast of Africa, circa 1850.

by Mary Grow

The story of Ebenezer Farwell

Maine, including to some extent small inland towns like Vassalboro, was more heavily involved in the international slave trade than many residents realize, both before and after slave-trading was made illegal in the United States in 1808.

Dr. Kate McMahon, Museum Specialist at the Center for the Study of Global Slavery, in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, gave more than four dozen local residents a history lesson Aug. 13 at the Vassalboro Historical Society’s museum in East Vassalboro.

Slavery has existed for centuries, McMahon said. In the 15th century, two developments converged to create a new, primarily race-based system: bigger ships and better navigational tools let European sailors reach Africa, and Europeans began colonizing the Americas.

In the Americas, first south and then north, indigenous inhabitants were eliminated and Europeans began plantation economies that needed labor. From the 1600s on, McMahon said, an estimated 12.5 million Africans, two-thirds of them men, were loaded onto slave ships for the Middle Passage, the voyage to the Americas. An estimated 10.7 million survived the trip.

Maine’s share in the slave trade McMahon described as small, but as brutal as anywhere else in the United States. It was concentrated in the earliest-settled areas, southern coastal Maine and Portland.

A painting of a Liverpool based ship believed to be involved in the slave trade. It bears strong similarities to the same artist’s image, ‘Liverpool Slave Ship’, painted circa 1780, and now at the Merseyside Maritime Museum. There are a number of figures visible on deck, some are thought to be slaves and others slave masters and sailors. The precise circumstances of this painting are not clear, and it may have been commissioned for the Liverpool offices of a bank or merchant involved in slavery to present an acceptable view of the trade. This coincides with the moment when the abolitionist movement was beginning to pose a serious threat to such traffic.

There is little information about the topic, because, McMahon said, there has not been a lot of interest in research; and many records, like ships’ logs, remain hidden in local museums and other repositories. There is also a misbelief that a merchant ship and a slave ship were two different vessels. McMahon said often the same ship would carry merchandise and slaves.

In 1787 and 1788, within half a decade after the United States became independent, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut banned slave-trading. Because different state regulations led to confusion, their officials pushed for a national law. In 1808 Congress made slave-trading illegal nationally.

McMahon explained that the ban applied to transporting slaves among countries abroad and into the United States. The internal slave trade remained legal until the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

In 1820, the ban was strengthened by defining transporting slaves as piracy, punishable by hanging. McMahon said alleged slave-traders were seldom punished. (An on-line source says in 74 trials between 1837 and 1860, there were many acquittals and some light sentences. One man was sentenced to death; he was pardoned by President James Buchanan in 1857).

The only man hanged for slave-trading, McMahon said, was Nathaniel Gordon, of Portland, Maine, in 1862. She said President Abraham Lincoln, fighting the Civil War and preparing for the Emancipation Proclamation, was “grandstanding” when he refused to pardon Gordon.

After 1807, fewer slaves were brought to the United States, but many United States citizens continued to transport slaves from Africa to other places in the Americas, like Cuba. One such ship captain was Ebenezer Farwell, of Vassalboro.

This Ebenezer Farwell was one of four sons of Ebenezer Farwell (1740 – 1807) and Jane Howard Farwell (1742 – 1806), according to an on-line source that lists the three youngest by date of birth – 1783, 1785 and 1787 – but does not include their first names.

McMahon did not give Ebenezer’s dates. She said in 1838, he was captain of the ship Transit, and in it picked up four male Africans from a place near the border between Liberia and Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). Three he brought to New York; one he brought home to Vassalboro and left with his father at their River House as an indentured servant.

New York abolitionists got on Farwell’s case. Farwell was not punished, but a judge ordered the Africans, including the young man in Vassalboro, be sent home to Africa.

Dr. Sylvester Gardiner, of Pittston, was a wealthy Maine slave owner.

By now, McMahon said, Farwell was wealthy enough to start building the Riverside Drive house known as the Farwell Mansion. When funds ran out, he went back to the same part of Africa, this time in a schooner named the Mary Carver.

What happened next is unclear, McMahon said, but Farwell and his crew were killed by Africans. She believes it was “a slave-trading deal gone bad.”

The United States government retaliated by sending the sloop of war USS Saratoga, under Commodore Matthew Perry, for what McMahon called “swift and brutal retribution.” United States sailors razed between 50 and 100 villages and killed King Ben Krako, who may have been responsible for Farwell’s death.

McMahon said Farwell’s wife and sons never lived in the mansion. She and audience members talked about the local story that the house became a stop on the underground railroad that helped escaped Southern slaves to freedom before the Civil War.

On-line sites repeat the story, crediting a man named Israel Weeks.

The USS Saratoga was built at the Portsmouth shipyard in 1842, McMahon said, the first of a number of government ships built specifically to look for slave traders. Because of their illegal business, the traders had fast ships; the Navy needed to match them.

Maine, with its good wood supply and its well-developed techniques, built some of the fastest ships available. Between 1850 and 1865, McMahon said, Maine ships brought some 25,000 slaves from Africa to sell them in Cuba.

Profits were immense; and often owners and captains could increase them by bringing Cuban products, like sugar and mahogany, to the United States.

To maximize profits, McMahon added, these later slave ships were often even more overcrowded than earlier, legal ones, and mortality rates were higher.

Because so many Maine-built ships and Maine captains were involved, the state’s economy was tied to the illegal slave trade. McMahon cited two figures: in 1852 (according to state records), the timber industry was worth $2.5 million; that same year (according to an 1857 New York Times report), the slave ship fleet brought in $11 million.

Mike Lokuta, current owner of the Farwell Mansion, told Sunday’s gathering he is restoring the house. He started by replacing footings under the tall columns across the front; four are done and the fifth soon will be.

Twentieth-century renovations he is undoing include removing two layers of sheetrock.

In a later email, Lokuta said the Farwell Mansion is not the same as Seven Oaks, an earlier Farwell house that Lokuta understands burned in the 1790s.

(In her 1971 Vassalboro history, Alma Pierce Robbins wrote that Isaac Farwell built Seven Oaks for his son Eben (1740 -1807), and said, apparently in error, that it was the columned house still standing.)

Lokuta said Seven Oaks’ foundation and a nearby well casing remain behind the mansion. They might have given rise to the story, which Lokuta says is untrue, that in Underground Railroad times a tunnel ran from the Kennebec River to the house. Many sources mention a tunnel into the cellar of the house, without further explanation.

Maine native Dr. Kate McMahon

Dr. Kate McMahon

Dr. Kate McMahon is a Maine native who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Southern Maine and her doctorate in history from Howard University, in Washington, D.C. Her field of concentration is slavery in the United States and related topics.

Some years before her Aug. 13 presentation, she had visited the Vassalboro Historical Society museum to look for information on Farwell, where she met members Simone Antworth, who introduced her to Sunday’s audience, and Russell Smith. That visit led to Sunday’s talk.

Asked if the VHS records had been helpful, McMahon said yes, and added that she is likely to return for more research as she works on a book.

For those interested in more information on New England’s role in the global slave trade, she mentioned two websites, atlanticblackbox.com and slavevoyages.org